Nest-minder Dr. Pat!

Patricia Latas
April 28, 2014 share
Artists for Conservation

Over Night, 11-12 April 2014

Nest-minder for the night!

The sweet sounds of moorpork owls and kakas singing in the night, soft wind in the rimu trees; gentle mist and a little hard rain. What could be closer to paradise? A mother kakapo and her chick, of course!

Good news and bad news--I loved this opportunity but I knew it would be hard on my out-of-shape-fat-postchemo-no-endurance body. Luckily Darryl was kind, forgiving and understanding and we made it to the nest site (without stroke or heart attack) just as Huhana left for her first foraging of the night.

Nest minder volunteers on Whenua Hou are stationed at an active nest every night until the chick "fledges" (I'm sorry I do not know the word for a fledging of a flightless bird). This very important job is to ensure the mothers are not molested by other kakapo, predators, inquisitive (or unintelligent) petrels; to monitor behaviors of the mothers, incubation of eggs and nestlings, and feeding of the chicks. The duties include a long uphike, muddy hike to a nest site with a 12 volt battery and supplies for the night. The nest minder stays in a tent through any weather every night of a 2-week tour.

Young birds and mothers have been saved by acute observation of the nest minders. Most recently, an egg was crushed by its mother, and through quick intervention the egg was rescued, repaired and eventually hatched!

The nest minder watches a tiny TV that is connected to an infra-red camera in the nest itself. A motion sensor chime is activated when the mother (or anything else) enters or leaves the nest. That "ding-dong" chime was a sound ingrained in my memory from my first tour-of-duty on Whenua Hou. "Ding-dong" the mom goes out, the minder watches and records, and stays awake til she comes back..."ding-dong"! In the early stages of the chick's incubation, the minders need to rush to the nest and provide artificial heating until the mother returns. A beeping transmitter lets the volunteer know where she is.

The mothers often feed on natural items, but are also fed a supplemental diet from automated feedhoppers. Their back-pack transmitters activate the feed hopper, and the rangers can weigh, locate and time the data from that feeding station.

The first night I was fortunate enough to go out with Darryl as a nest minder for Huhana. Darryl needed to check the health status of the TWO chicks on her nest. The Kakapo Recovery Team generally allows only one chick per female, but this was a trial to see how she did with two. One was her own chick, Huhana 2 (her second egg--the first was infertile) and the other was Rakiura2 (the second of 3 eggs laid by Rakiura). Kakapo chicks are named (temporarily) according to their mother's name and the order in which they were laid as eggs. Every chick therefore has  a known father.  Much later on they receive their permanent name.

Huhana2 was just put under Huhana last night, having been raised in an incubator and hand-fed for the first two weeks. Raki2 had hatched under her. Huhana is only 5 years old, the youngest female to lay an egg, and she was "fostering" Raki 2 and Huhana 2. These youngsters were huge, 635 and around 550 gm. Those are the weights of a very big Amazon Parrot or a large Cockatoo, and these chick only about 10-14 days old! kakapo chicks are covered in very soft, dense down. They are heavy and soft. They are helpless. They smell really good!

The kakapo mothers are remarkably resilient and excellent mums--they do not care whose chick is under them, nor how often that egg/chick changes (age, size, shape), and completely uncomplaining about human manupulation of the nest. All changes are made when the mother is out at night feeding, but she doen't care. The first mother I observed, Flossie, spent an hour or so fussing with the nest after humans had been in there, but certainly was not put out nor neglected her chick.

Little Raki 2 was not doing well, as the new foster, Huhana 2, was quite a bruiser and was fed by Huhana at the expense of the original foster.She had never had any "mother" lessons, and the beggingest chick got the meal. Raki2 missed a whole night of feeding.

Darryl decided to take little Raki2 down to ICU and hand-feeding. So off he went, in the dead of night, with an insulated box full of kakapo chick. This is his normal work. I took up my station to watch the Kakapo Channel on TV.

The rest of the night was uneventful, Huhana went out for several excursions. Each feeding session lasted about an hour. Kakapos are nothing if not thorough. She loved her baby very much and spent a lot of time cleaning and grooming him. The youngster was almost as big as his mother. It was fun to watch her try to sit on him, with parts bulging out first here, then there, then finally somehow all underneath.

 

Jet-lag, exhaustion and the after effects of travel made for sound sleep inbetween "ding-dongs".

 

Huhana is an iwi (Maori) family name, and the name was given to Huhana (the Kakapo) in honor of support given by the iwi family. Huhana (the human) was a founder of the settlement on Whenua Hou, that was set aside by the Maori for sealer/Maori intermarriages.

See video
See video

Location

Codfish Island, Southland NZ
New Zealand
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